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In-person Sunday morning services are temporarily postponed. We hope for a return in February.

“Believing in the Church is…: All Saints’ Sunday

Sunday, November 7, 2021
John 11:32-44
Eucharist and Holy Baptism

Baptism is a response to God. Well, let me tidy that up a bit: baptism is an act of God. (It’s a sacrament: those things we do in which we believe God is at work through the ‘stuff’ of this world.)

Our participation in baptism is our response to God. Same thing goes with ordination, and confirmation. And prayer. And sharing in communion. Today we celebrate that Andrea has been attentive to the compassionate, creative Spirit of God in her life, including over the last year and a bit, responding every step of the way. And today she’s taking that big step into the waters of baptism to be soaked in the Spirit of God that hovered over the waters at creation, and was at work in the person of Jesus in his passion and resurrection.

As many of us were wondering how to make sense of our faith and our faith practices during the onset of the pandemic, asking “how shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?” others were… wondering how to make sense of their faith and their faith practices during the pandemic…! Not with anxiousness, but with expectation. The expectation that God was still around, and acting, and calling out a response in us. This, for Andrea, included connecting — from Toronto — with a church in another city, with worship, fellowship, and education mediated through the computer screen. These ‘strange lands’ of online church, and lockdowns and all that they brought with them, were indeed indications that we weren’t in Kansas anymore; they were different, and imperfect. But Andrea’s presence with us today is a witness to God’s stable presence with us through that valley of the shadow of death — all the while calling for a response. (And, oh, that I had been so heartfelt in my response to God these last 20 months!) Baptism is a response; an expression of our trust, our belief, in a God we’ve experienced as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And it’s also seen as the official and full entranceway into another mystery that comes up in our creeds: the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and the Communion of Saints.

Rowan Williams (someone I know I mention a lot, and someone whom Andrea and I have read together) writes in a little book about the creeds that “believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with.”* Think for a second about the stories we have about Jesus’s baptism: everyone was heading out to the river Jordan, and Jesus goes out there and joins them. And what happens after his baptism? He gathers a group of people to journey alongside him. What is one of the tragic, disturbing failures of the disciples toward the end of the gospels? They all go away from him. And then what’s the good news that the angel gives Mary Magdalene after she discovers the empty tomb? ‘Get the group back together, and head back home, where you’ll meet Jesus.’

Baptism — coming to baptism — is our response to God. And it’s not something we do alone. And I say this — as someone who worked in the retail sector for years, and learned firsthand — that, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “hell is other people.” But this faith tradition in which we’ve located ourselves doesn’t really give us an alternative. Sure, even praying in our rooms, or lost in a dark wood, God is still very much there. But — if we are wanting to follow Jesus, and the Way of Jesus, then we might well wonder where Jesus is. And a good guess is that he’s with other people: whether in mourning (like in today’s gospel story), or in celebration, or challenging an angry, self-righteous mob. (And if that philosopher’s right that “hell is other people,” don’t worry, because where was the first place Jesus went after his crucifixion? “He descended into hell.” He goes where he’s needed.)

But our baptism is, of course, also our sharing in Christ’s resurrection. And each week, to use the wording from the Book of Common Prayer, we remind ourselves that we’re in this together, when we say “Therefore with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name…” And then our eucharistic prayer continues to remind us that we’ve come to know God because God has come to us in stuff: in the world, in our forebears, in our neighbours. [Considering Eucharistic Prayer 3:] In creation; in the Chosen People; in the prophets that spoke God’s word; in Mary; and in Jesus. And if we were to continue down that list, we’d eventually get to you, we’d get to me, and we’d get to Andrea. Real people, as human as we are, responding to God. “So,” says Archbishop Williams, “believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with.”*

As we look back on the last year and a bit of walking with Andrea, it has not been a one-way street. It was not an empty vessel on one end, and a group of perfect experts on the other. Far from that. We have grown together. We have all contributed our own unique gifts. And we’ve all been enriched, and changed. We are each in an ongoing process of re-creation: the Holy Spirit working on us, sometimes with fire, sometimes with whispers. But if we are open and listening, we can all respond to that sense or experience of God, of creativity, of the good. Of life after death. Jesus is calling each one of us, drawing us nearer, and drawing out our response. And it’s inevitable that we will find ourselves surrounded by others – by “so great a cloud of witnesses” [Hebrews 12:1], not primarily because of our own goodness, or efforts, or polish, or similarity, or uniformity; but because Jesus has been drawing those others, too. “[B]elieving in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with.”

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007), 106.